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Krista Diamond | Longreads | November 2022 | 16 minutes (4,342 words)
In 2012, I was working at a hotel in Glacier National Park when a man I’d just met invited me for a day of tubing and drinking beer on the river. Little did I know, I would nearly drown in the rapids.
But this story doesn’t begin in the water.
This story begins at Many Glacier Hotel the night before the start of the summer season. The employees, most of us new to each other, new to Glacier, gathered in a basement theater space typically reserved for a folk singer who performed songs about mountaineering. A seasoned National Park Service ranger stood before us in the usual wide-brimmed hat and stiff green trousers.
“Glacier National Park is dangerous,” she said. “And every year, there are fatalities. Climbing accidents, deadly encounters with animals. Some of you have experience in nature. Some of you are new to it. Either way, statistically, one of you will die this summer.”
Perhaps it was the growing darkness outside, the perfectly triangular silhouette of Grinnell Point above the mirrored surface of Swiftcurrent Lake, or the forest, thick with night, but her words sounded like a campfire story. We listened, but we did not believe. Instead, we thought of the cold beers we’d later share on the porch outside the employee dorms, tomorrow’s hike to Iceberg Lake, the beds in the hotel that needed linens, linens for guests who were on their way to this sacred corner of Montana.
I’m not going to die this summer, I thought the next day in the employee dining room, dousing a plate of rubbery scrambled eggs with hot sauce. I was young. It was my first season in the park. I’d seen the group of veteran Glacier employees headed for foreboding black cliffs with their helmets, headlamps, and worn copies of A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park. I wasn’t going to do anything like that. At least not yet.
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An hour later, I stood on the bank of the Swiftcurrent River, barefoot in a bikini, inflating a cheap plastic inner tube.
“It’ll be mellow,” Luke* said over the thrum of the water. Like me, he was a server at the hotel restaurant. He handed me a warm can of beer and we made our way down the berm, sat on our tubes, and pushed ourselves into the water.
The river was swollen with alpine runoff. Clear and cold enough to drink big gulps. He was right at first; it was mellow. The water tugged us along steadily, then slowed, picked up the pace, slowed again. Like the ride at a water park I’d loved as a kid, or the game I’d played in neighborhood pools where we’d move in big circles to create a current. Mellow.
Halfway through my beer, the trickle mutated into a torrent. Suddenly, the river roared as it curved through the valley. It forked. Luke went one way; I went another. It became a force bigger than me, a surge of water pouring over downed trees that sliced my arms and legs, poked holes in my pathetic yellow tube which began to deflate, deflate, deflate. The muddy riverbank was out of reach. I sank. The current tossed me from my tube. I held onto the handle of the sinking vessel, my entire body underwater except for my fingers, the bones of my shins hitting every rock on the riverbed, downed tree branches stabbing my ribs, my lungs filling with water as I gasped for air and was denied. The river was in charge now, I realized, and though I fought it as long as I could, my veins electric with fear, I kept swallowing water, choking on it, until I was breathing more water than air, until my legs were bruised and useless, until my grip began to loosen on what was left of the inner tube. And then my head went heavy, my vision went dark. The rushing river in my ears became a song guiding me toward the unknown.
Let go, the river said.
A sense of peace. A flood of euphoria. A joy I’d never felt before, have never felt since.
Okay, I thought.
But then the tumbling stream pushed me to the surface, just for a moment. Just long enough for me to feel the sun on my skin. Just long enough for a single breath of mountain air. It jolted me, brought me back. I lunged for the earth that ran parallel to the rapids and grabbed hold of brush and branches that were still mercifully fixed to something. I pulled myself onto land and collapsed on my back, my stomach rising and falling, my bikini top torn clean off my bleeding breasts, my legs dark with bruises, my arms slick and red. In shock, I got up and ran up the hill, through the trees, and onto the side of the road, rocks slicing the soles of my feet as I wept and screamed. Cars containing tourists passed me by, despite the fact that I was waving at them. Finally, a man from the nearby Blackfeet Reservation picked me up, let me ride in the bed of his truck. “Don’t want you bleeding on the upholstery,” he said.
Luke was fine, I later learned. He’d gotten out of the water in time. “Whoops,” he said, of the incident.
“Let me get you a beer,” people kept saying to me at the employee pub. “Let me get you some wine. Whatever you want.”
I drank until I stopped shaking. Until the story was a story. Until I couldn’t hear the ranger saying statistically, one of you will die this summer. But later that night, alone in my twin-sized bed, the river returned. It washed over me, flooded my ear canals, filled my lungs. Cold and violent, it would always be with me.
There have been other near misses.
In Glacier, that same summer, a scramble turned into a fall. Wet shale. Loose rock. I couldn’t trust it. I lost my footing and slid down, would have slid straight off a cliff if the hotel’s piano player hadn’t been below me to catch me. The mountain sank its teeth into me on the way down, cutting three vertical slices into my side, lines of blood that would scar and then open up again and again as I lifted the tray that night during dinner service. “Uh, you’re bleeding through your shirt,” a coworker would say.
I drank until I stopped shaking. Until the story was a story. Until I couldn’t hear the ranger saying statistically, one of you will die this summer.
In Glacier, a different summer. Mama grizzly and her cubs on the side of the trail. A moose charging toward me through the misty trees.
In Death Valley, a dirt road strewn with boulders, a narrow canyon streaked with paint from vehicles that had squeezed through. No cell service. I got the rented Jeep stuck on a ledge, gave up and started chain-smoking, somehow pushed the car to safety. But I learned nothing. I did other reckless shit with my own car. Drove it 60 miles on empty one hot, desolate night. Drove it 120 miles per hour just to see what it felt like. The guy in the passenger seat said what the fuck were you thinking when I finally released the gas pedal.
That girl, someone said, is going to get herself killed.
In 2016, a group of Canadian social media influencers took a road trip throughout the United States. Their YouTube channel High on Life has more than 600,000 subscribers. Their Instagram account has almost a million followers. All of their videos follow a similar formula: a group of attractive friends — mostly male, mostly white, with Vegas dayclub style and a techno soundtrack to match — going on adventures around the world. Snorkeling in Indonesia, doing backflips in front of the Eiffel Tower at sunrise, kiteboarding in Spain, skiing in their underwear in British Columbia, going to raves in Croatia. Oversaturated color. Drone footage of turquoise waves, sparkling cities, and aspirational Airbnbs. Voiceovers encouraging the viewer to make the choice to enjoy life.
But they got into some trouble.
During their United States road trip, they were filmed leaving a boardwalk in Yellowstone and walking on the fragile landscape surrounding the park’s Grand Prismatic Spring. They were also caught waterskiing on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and riding bicycles at Badwater Basin in Death Valley — both illegal activities.
My friends and I in the national parks couldn’t believe this shit. Not only were these influencers laughing and smiling as they trampled pristine wilderness all over the country; they were posting about it on social media. We were outraged, seeing places we loved — places we’d lived in, worked in — desecrated. When the influencers were fined, sentenced to a week in jail, and banned from public lands in the United States for five years, we were thrilled. And then we forgot about them — at least, most of us did. But not me. I continued to hate-watch their content. Their stupid videos — girls in bikinis and guys in board shorts flexing at a rooftop pool in Barcelona, running around on sand dunes in Vietnam, acting like anyone could have a life like that if they really wanted it.
In July 2018, the crew was in the news again. They’d been goofing around on the cliffs at Shannon Falls in British Columbia, shooting content, doing their thing, when one slipped and tumbled into the water. Two of the others jumped in to save her, and they went over the edge of a 100-foot waterfall. All three died.
Reactions were swift and merciless.
Couldn’t have happened to more deserving idiots, someone commented on Facebook.
Natural selection at work again, wrote another.
And perhaps most succinctly: Karma!!!
A few friends from the national parks texted me to ask if I’d seen it, mentioned they didn’t feel sad about it at all.
The cruel responses were out in the open. It made me uneasy. Hadn’t we done stupid, selfish shit too? Driven drunk in the Tetons? Taken selfies with a moose?
After Shannon Falls, the remaining members of the High on Life crew set up a widely criticized GoFundMe, which only raised $29,646 out of a $50,000 goal. Their social media went dark, but only for two months, at which point, they posted a video on Instagram. A montage of their adventures with techno music and drone shots of beaches. “Instead of focusing on the past we wish to look toward the future,” a monotone male voice intoned. “With that said, we will now begin posting more frequently to this page.”
Two days later, they shared a video of the group bungee jumping over a river that looked a lot like the one their three friends had died in.
“They make it hard to feel sorry for them,” I told a friend. “But I do.”
“I don’t,” she said. “Karma.”
She said it simply. As if it were transactional: Disrespect nature and pay the price. I wondered if she believed it, if it was comforting to tell herself that out here, good people live and assholes die.
There is a series of books you’ll find in any national park gift shop. We call them the “Death in … ” books.
Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park
Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon
Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite
Death in Big Bend
Death in Zion National Park
Death in Glacier National Park
Frequently updated and incredibly exhaustive, most of the books follow a similar format: narrative accounts of deaths and near-deaths in the national parks divided into categories. Deaths by falling. Deaths by drowning. Suicide. Murder. Freak accidents.
During the summer I worked in Yellowstone, a copy of Death in Yellowstone made its way around the employee dorms. We pored over it on camping trips, shared anecdotes at the employee pub, read it aloud on long drives. Even if you hadn’t read it, you felt like you had. The book’s most well-known story is its first: the story of two Californians, David Allen Kirwan and Ronald Ratliff, who visited Yellowstone in 1981 with a big dog, Moosie. When Moosie jumped into a 202-degree hot spring, Kirwan jumped in after her, but he couldn’t save the dog from the bubbling sulphuric pool. As Ratliff helped him crawl out, Kirwan left behind handprints of skin on the rock. Lying on the ground, he whispered, “That was a stupid thing I did.” The next day, he died.
We were especially fascinated by the stories that took place at Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in the United States above 7,000 feet, because we lived on its shore. The lake is very, very cold — about 40 degrees Farenheit during the summer — except for in places where secret underwater geysers roil, creating bursts of heat up to 252 degrees. The lake is also deep. Very, very deep. It’s 390 feet deep at its deepest point. Survival time is about 20 minutes for anyone who falls off a boat while fishing for trout. “The lake keeps its dead,” the rangers told us, which had something to do with a strong current that ran along the bottom and held things down. We repeated this phrase often — the lake keeps its dead the lake keeps its dead the lake keeps its dead — laughing as we chanted it on the days when we took acid and went swimming.
In Yosemite, I read Death in Yosemite from the bottom bunk in Housekeeping Camp, a village of canvas tents by the Merced River, which is statistically the most deadly place in the national park. A light rain fell, which turned to snow at higher elevations, closing Tioga Pass, the mountainous eastern route into the park. Mist enshrined the granite walls that ringed the valley. I read the 608-page book from cover-to-cover, safe inside my sleeping bag. I became obsessed with stories about the Ledge Trail, the third-deadliest location in the national park, an abandoned, closed-down trail that traverses from the Yosemite Valley up to Glacier Point. It is the shortest route from the valley floor to Glacier Point and covers approximately 4,000 feet in just a few short, near-vertical miles on loose rock. It is not marked, though it begins behind a popular lodge. Those that find it will know they’re in the right place when they encounter a steel sign anchored to the rock that reads: DANGEROUS DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FOLLOW THIS ABANDONED TRAIL.
At the Grand Canyon, I read Death in Grand Canyon (“newly expanded 10th-anniversary edition”) on a blistering hot day in late June. I had expected the book to be mostly about people plummeting into the abyss, and while there are chapters devoted to both falls from the rim and falls from within the canyon, a good portion of the book is about heat: thirst, fatigue, racing heart, confusion, death. In Death Valley, which was the very first national park I ever lived in, they teach you about the three stages of a heat emergency on your first day of work. First, there are heat cramps. Your muscles twinge. Sweat beads form on your forehead. There’s a tightening in your stomach. Heat cramps are easy to ignore. If you’re hiking in the desert and you experience them, you might take an aspirin and continue on. Next, there is heat exhaustion, which is less easy to disregard. You feel nauseated, dizzy, feverish. Your pulse throbs. You feel confused. You struggle to put one foot in front of the other. The last step is heatstroke, which is when your fever spikes to 104 or higher, when you begin to act like you are drunk — vomiting, slurring your words, stumbling, passing out. And then you die.
“Check the color of your urine often,” the human resources manager in Death Valley told us calmly on my first day in the park, which is probably the only time that sentence has been uttered by a human resources manager.
On the same hot day in June in which I read Death in Grand Canyon, I descended the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim, hoping to reach Plateau Point, which is nearly eight miles one way. I was 1.5 miles away when I began to feel the effects of the heat. I had lost more than 3,200 feet in elevation since leaving the comfort of the air-conditioned hotels and restaurants and gift shops at the rim. The sky above was bright blue and far away. And it was hot. Hot and getting hotter the further down I went. The sun shifted, blanketing the exposed trail I’d come from — the same I’d have to return on — in white-hot light.
There is a reason why they call the Grand Canyon the Inverted Mountain, why there are signs at the top that read going down is optional, going up is mandatory. I had heard these things before, but now, standing in the thick heat several thousand feet below the rim of the canyon, they meant something. At Indian Garden, I laid down in the shade of a cottonwood tree, but I knew I could not stay. I quietly panicked. Sweat soaked the small of my back. The water from my backpack was warm as tea. I began the long climb back up to the top, facing the harsh sun, the part in my hair burning. At first, I was sustained by the adrenaline of my fear, but it dissipated quickly, and after that each step was agony. My feet were heavy. My brain was mush. My blue T-shirt was white with salt from my pores. I felt as if I was walking underwater. I took a long pull of water and felt it move right through me. I immediately began to urinate. A fat white bighorn sheep on the trail in front of me looked back, his pupils little black squares.
I was going to die.
A mile and a half from the top, a ranger stood in the sun. Hikers were sprawled out around him in the dirt, looking dead-eyed, breathing heavily. These were the people who I had often judged as stupid. These midwest idiots, these people who populated the pages of Death in Grand Canyon. Yet here I was, among them.
“Uh-oh,” the ranger said when he saw me. Of course I could not see myself, but his reaction to me was enough.
“Sit,” the ranger said, though there was no shade to be had. He gave me a sports drink, which I nursed until the taste made me sick. My head pounded. My eyes burned.
“I don’t understand,” I murmured. “I’ve had plenty of water.”
Later, I would read about water intoxication and wonder if I’d in fact had too much.
After leaving the national parks, I returned to Glacier with my friend, John, who had worked at the hotel with me the summer I’d nearly drowned. We spent the day stand-up paddleboarding on Lake McDonald, riding high on the glassy surface of the water over the smooth, rust-colored stones below. We stopped at a general store after for snacks and saw a copy of Death in Glacier National Park. Neither of us had read it, so we bought it, and John read it aloud to me as we drove over the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which meanders past fields of beargrass and cliffs where mountain goats stand guard as it crosses the Continental Divide before dropping down into the dreamy meadows that surround St. Mary Lake and its minuscule island.
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He arrived at a story we knew. In 2012, a 19-year-old hotel employee named Jakson Kreiser had set out to hike from Logan Pass to Avalanche Lake, an off-trail downward route that passes through blossoming wildflowers and electric blue pools of glacial runoff. He never returned. Rangers searched meticulously but began to feel less and less optimistic. After eight days, the search was downgraded to “limited mode.” Soon enough, there was no one searching at all. I remember that search. Each day, we talked about it in the employee dining room, on our own hikes, in our dorm rooms overlooking the ceaseless waters of the lake that spread out before the faux Swiss facade of the hotel. By September, the aspens were golden, the air was cool, and the season was winding down. Soon, the tourists would leave, the mountain roads would close, and we’d head to other seasonal jobs — Death Valley for me, ski resorts for my friends. It was during those final few melancholic weeks, amid the raucous midnight goodbye parties, that the news came. A pair of hikers had found his body. He’d slipped while crossing the slick wet rocks of a drainage and drowned in the freezing water.
Either way, statistically, one of you will die this summer, the ranger had said.
He had been the one.
Even now, after all these years, my shins are still tender to the touch. My husband will roll over in his sleep, brush his leg against mine and suddenly it’s like there’s no skin, no flesh, no fat, no muscle on the bone. It’s like I’ve just pulled myself out of the Swiftcurrent River and I’m lying in the cool grass, hot tears on my face, half-naked and covered in blood, propping myself up on my elbows to look down at my shins only to see them swollen and black. Every rock on the riverbed that day a fuck you.
But I didn’t drown. I didn’t fall. I didn’t crash.
You know what they say — play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
And I have been very, very stupid. So why am I still alive?
If you are someone who ventures into the wilderness, you don’t want the answer to that question. You want order. We all do. But the pines of the forest, the sands of the desert, the snowy couloirs of the mountains, they will not give us that.
During the winter I worked in Big Bend, I read Death in Big Bend. I read it in my trailer, which was infested with wolf spiders. They eyed me from beneath plates in cabinets. They crawled up from the drain when I showered, their crooked legs twitching as they ran from the moisture. I read it in the gravel yard outside, where packs of dark brown javelinas passed through, smelling like skunks and shrieking like ghouls. I read it by the Rio Grande, looking out into Mexico. Death in Big Bend is different from the other books. It focuses mainly on the rescue efforts of the rangers and names each chapter after a person who died, rather than relegating crowds of victims under headings like Air Crashes, River Deaths, Vehicle Deaths, Waterfall Deaths, Falls While Hiking. The tone of Death in Big Bend is kinder, the attempt to teach the reader a lesson more genuine. Reading Death in Big Bend doesn’t feel like gawking at a car accident or leaving a comment about Darwin on a news story. The book is an exploration of the sheer skill of the rangers who descended wall after wall of Cattail Canyon to rescue a stranded climber. The book is a sympathetic portrait of what it takes to recover the naked body of a suicide victim from the undulating and endless desert beneath the Chisos Mountains. It’s an anomaly for a reason. People want to separate themselves from death. They want to laugh at it or gasp in horror. Making it human brings it closer.
A sense of order pulls us back. And even though nature is chaos, we long for its code of conduct, we beg it to explain its reasoning. We make handbooks, hiking guides. We chronicle all the ways in which people have died so that we can learn from their mistakes. We make rules:
Rule #1: If you are unprepared, you will die. After Jakson’s body was found, the rangers noted that he was inexperienced. I felt the invisible sigh of relief among the folks who had been hiking and climbing in Glacier for years. They knew how to engage with these mountains. These mountains would let them live.
Rule #2: If you are disrespectful, you will die. The Canadian influencers had treated the wilderness with contempt, laughing as they filmed themselves doubting the length of its memory, its capacity for revenge. We learned this lesson from them, from others like them: Don’t hurt the animals, don’t litter, don’t trample fragile ecosystems. Be good and the landscape will be good to you.
Rule #3: If all else fails, trust the statistics. According to a 2020 study from personal injury law firm Panish Shea & Boyle LLP, most people who die in the national parks are men. The majority are between 55 and 64 years old. The leading cause of death in the national parks is drowning. You are more likely to die in Yosemite than you are in Death Valley. And you are more likely to die in North Cascades National Park than in any national park. But you can take comfort in knowing that there were less than eight deaths per 10 million visits to national park sites between 2007 and 2018.
Repeat these numbers on the trail at dawn when you hear the huffing of a bear on the cliffside below. Repeat them as you cross the river and feel it tug on your ankles. Repeat them when the lightning cracks the sky above you, strikes the rock beside you, lights the world up violet around you, reminding you for just a second that this is all just random and it is not the Oklahomans in jean shorts trekking into the Grand Canyon with cans of cola in hand who are fools, but it is you; you were a fool to believe that this is all some ordered system.
Trust the statistics. Trust the rules.
Remember, the ranger said one of you. Never mind the summers when there were two.
* Luke is a pseudonym
Krista Diamond‘s work has appeared in The New York Times, HuffPost, Catapult, and elsewhere. Her writing has been supported by Bread Loaf and Tin House. She lives in Las Vegas where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands